IS CONSUMERISM A SOCIAL GOOD OR EVIL?
‘Big billion-day sale is on. Don’t miss out on rock bottom prices. SAVE $$$’
You probably have seen a similar copy in your newspaper or perhaps on billboards around the city. While it looks like a regular advertisement for a shopping website or a mall that informs people of a saving they could make by buying products at a discounted price. A closer look will reveal that the copy motivates us at a subconscious level. The words “Don’t miss out” makes us act — as fear, a primary instinctive emotion within the human mind has been stimulated. So, what we end up doing is going to the site to browse, and on seeing a product discounted at 40% we think we’re going to save a lot of money. But what we don’t realise is that although we are spending less money we are still spending and therefore, not saving.
We are in the year 2022 and the world is going through rapid changes be it social, economic, climate, or even political. According to circularboard.com of the 7.74 billion population globally, around 2.14 billion people shopped online in 2021. That’s a little over a quarter of the world, shopping online. And this is set to grow at a rate of 4% annually. This constant activity of consumption is keeping our countries running financially, but what it is doing is creating a vicious cycle that is affecting all of us.
Sociologists call consumerism a way of life, they define it as an ideology that seductively binds people to the system of mass production and consumption, turning it from a means to an end. As acquiring goods becomes the basis of our individuality and personality. So, how did we reach here; In the book titled Wealth of Nations (1776), Scottish Economist Adam Smith reasoned that the pursuit of luxury would be an economic driver and would make everyone richer. And the best way to encourage economic growth was to unleash individuals to pursue their own economic interests. He provided the model which would ultimately take over the world — CAPITALISM and its goal was to tackle happiness in all its complexities not just material but psychological and sociological too, which in turn would give rise to Consumerism.
Every day we continue to buy things and fill our homes with stuff, we have created a buy and throw culture. Not so long ago, clothes and things like furniture and cookware would have been passed down from one user to the next. But not anymore, for starters the goods produced a few decades ago were made to last a lifetime and in today’s world of fast and cheap production, it becomes a matter of choice, convenience, and cost. The major driving force that propagates this lifestyle is the advertising that we are constantly bombarded with, be it through traditional means or through social media. The promotion is aimed at our subconscious and triggers our emotions, especially that of feeling good and happy. We have come to associate products with our emotions, try this out; ask a child if going to a popular burger place makes him or her happy and the immediate answer would be yes perhaps with a big smile. Ask the average adult if wearing branded clothes gives them a boost in their confidence and they will agree. However, we cannot and should not blame the individual for reaching this place. Corporates have a vested interest in making us buy as without consumption they would go bankrupt and hence they have created a system that promotes the growth of businesses which in turn generates employment and prosperity for the rest of society and this results in consumption and this cycle is not just spinning around its growing as it spins. And as this trend continues we see authorities that are meant to protect and promote the well-being of their people have now become more concerned with the economic development reducing the people of their countries to consumers in the economy.
Going to work is a way of providing for the family and the average worker today, works way longer hours than in the previous two decades and does so, to give their families a better life. But the problem is not about a car that helps us to get from one place to another, it has now become about how big, better, and what extra features the car can possess. It is not about wearing shoes that are comfortable, it has now become about getting the pair that’s just in and endorsed by a popular celebrity. The ‘better life’ is what we’ve come to associate with our material possessions. And this is a concerning trend because once a person’s basic needs are met, acquiring stuff doesn’t increase their well-being. We have moved away from spending time around loved ones as we work longer hours. Our conversations revolve around markets, the economy, and what’s trending, giving deep connections a miss. Today, the expression of love is spelled out in buying materials things as phones, gadgets, and even clothes but they come with an environmental price tag, and at the rate at which we are going our planet will soon run out of resources.
To counter consumerism the minimalist lifestyle has been advocated by many of its users, as they have become aware that one is not going to get happier by consuming more. So, what exactly is Minimalism? A minimalist is someone who lives with the intent of being, being present in the now, and living the harmony with the person he or she has come to be without the possessions of things. Minimalism is not about having something or not having something, we all need clothes, but do we really need XYZ’s brand of clothes? Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are perhaps the most iconic entrepreneurs of the 21st century both build companies that are known to almost everyone on earth. Yet both had similar choices when it came to clothes, they were intentional about what they wore. But this doesn’t mean that one should be wearing the same kind of clothes every day, and critics of the minimalist lifestyle will argue that intent is a personal thing and the minimalist lifestyle is an extreme choice.
What then is the way forward from where we are? The is no single solution answer to this, however, a lot can be achieved through a collaborative effort from all stakeholders, be it Governments, Corporations, and Individuals. For starters, Governments need to change their stance on what real development is rather than just focusing on economic development. They need to focus on newer reforms and inclusive policies led by public participation and cater equally to all sections of society. Because a nation is made up of its people and it is in the well-being and equal representation of the people that make it truly developed. Corporations need to be more people-oriented rather than profit-oriented. Job creation and retention should be given emphasis rather than cost-cutting and capital reserves although this may be an uphill task. The reform of capitalism levers on a new kind of consumerism; on the concept of a new economy that is focused on buying and selling of services and goods focused on our higher needs. And finally, as Individuals, we need to change our approach to life from a materialistic to a more holistic way of living. We come into this world empty-handed and we go back likewise, and the fundamental difference we can make in that timespan is the way we make people feel and the lives we touch through our actions.
This article by Ashford Menezes was published in Sangati Magazine a Don Bosco Goa Province Publication issued in MAR -2022